Ramping up my reviewing.
Happily playing games for many, many years.
Dwellers of the Forbidden City is the adventure that introduced us to several classic D&D monsters: the yuan-ti, the aboleth, the mongrelmen, the bullywugs and the tasloi first see their adventure debut in this module. Any module that manages to have so many monsters that capture the imagination is going to be worth looking at, surely? However, Dwellers is not without its problems, and seems curiously underdeveloped to the modern eye.
Dwellers was the first release in the I (Intermediate) series of modules for mid-level characters; it’s for levels 4-7, a range of levels that is generally where AD&D works the best. (My preference for AD&D is for the levels 5-9). Cook drew inspiration from the Conan novella Red Nails, but little of the Conan tale is readily apparent in the challenges or setting; Dwellers is more similar to other tales of ruined civilisations.
Part of Dwellers derives from an Origins tournament adventure, but it’s a fairly minor part of the work: ten encounters detailing a linear path into the city, and the rescue of a local chief’s son from the Yuan Ti. Despite this adventure seeing the debut of the Yuan Ti, certainly the most iconic of its monsters, they are curiously absent from the rest of the city’s description, despite being very prominent in a number of suggested adventures at the end of the module.
The tournament section is about what you’d expect from the era: combats interspersed with “make the party think” encounters that don’t always make much sense - an anti-gravity sphere on the roof holding a chest with the key to the next room? Which is then locked and trapped itself? It’s one of the stupidest encounters I’ve seen in a D&D module, blatantly there just to challenge the players rather than fit into any logical scheme.
A second path into the forbidden city also has a tournament structure to it, although it is slightly less linear with a choice of two entry points before both converge after a few encounters. The Aboleth makes its debut here, and, although there is slightly more information given in its monster entry, much is left up to the DM’s imagination. It is regarded as a god by the mongrelmen of the area. I rather like the mongrelmen, which are poor deformed creatures, the result of many creatures crossbreeding over generations.
Three other ways into the forbidden city are detailed, although they aren’t as elaborate as those two paths, but they have their own perils and returning by those routes might be quite difficult.
The actual forbidden city consists of several factions of creatures in the ruins: Bullywugs, Tasloi, Bugbears, and Mongrelmen. In addition, there is an evil Magic-User and his followers who are trying to unite the factions (and who is responsible for the extra raids of the Yuan Ti and their allies). Unfortunately, the factions are mostly of the most primitive nature, and the DM must use his ingenuity to properly fill them with life. There are some good touches, like the “god” of the bullywugs (a pan-lung oriental dragon) and the possibility of being condemned (for life) to be the chief of the mongrelmen, but there’s very little hint of the ruined civilisation that once lived here, and, especially, of their heirs: the Yuan Ti.
This is made even more frustrating by the section of the module “The Forbidden City in Campaign Play” which gives four backgrounds (reasons of adventuring) and then four possible adventure suggestions in the forbidden city. Here’s the first of the adventure suggestions:
“Under the city stretches the ancient primitive sewer system. In it now live monsters and colonies of creatures of all sorts. But, most common are the jungel-ghouls and the last human descendants of the yuan ti ancestors. The ghouls and humans wage a constant war of attacks, sallies, counter-attacks, and sieges through the underground tunnels. More cunning than normal ghouls and led by small demonic leaders, the jungle-ghouls attempt to transform the humans into twisted slime-beasts with their cancerous touch. The humans are nearly blind from the centuries of underground existence and rely on their other heightened senses to survive. They hate those who bring light, worshipping the kindly god of darkness who drives away the demons of light, worshiping the kindly god of darkness who drives away the demons of light. It is rumored that somewhere in the tunnels is the fabulous lost temple of Ranet. The temple is there, and is guarded by the giant snake-queen.”
Isn’t that a fantastic adventure? The other three adventure suggestions are also great and evocative. Why don’t we have them rather than the adventure we do have? This is the basic problem of Dwellers of the Forbidden City: it takes a great idea for a setting, includes brilliant new monsters, and then doesn’t use them. The Yuan Ti appear in the passages leading to the city, but aren’t in the city proper at all? What’s going on here?
I have similar reservations about Vault of the Drow: we are presented with an evocative setting, but then given little aid in actually running it. In fact, Dwellers of the Forbidden City gives far more aid than Vault, with explanations of the various factions and their relationships to each other in the introduction to the module. I still wish for more, however.
One other curiously undeveloped feature of the adventure is that the city itself. It is full of ruined buildings, but they are basically left undescribed. This isn’t like Hidden Shrine of Tamoachan, where the setting was as much a character as the monsters and NPCs; the city itself just exists as “ruins” without even a statue to give a clue as to the previous nature of the city.
Dwellers of the Forbidden City is a well-regarded adventure; it was placed 13th in Dragon Magazine’s “Best D&D Adventures of All-Time” poll in 2004; however, it greatly relies on the ability of the Dungeon Master to expand it and to bring to life the factions and personalities of the city. It is a great starting point for a campaign, although it requires a lot of work. With the entrances to the city being more interesting than the city itself, I consider it to be a flawed adventure that scores most highly for being inspiring rather than actually providing a detailed adventure setting.
I'm at Mini-Wellycon - Oct 22 - 23, 2016
Yes, I think that's right. The tournament begining is pretty blah. Howevere, tThis is one of the early modules with the most potential for a DM. Characters should try and get help from one of the factions, probably the Mongrelmen and then sort out the rest of the City, bit by bit. I liked the illustration of the bad-tempered Magic User taking out her anger on an unfortunate Mongrelman.